Is there a more appealing, entertaining argument for motherhood than "La Cage aux Folles"? Especially when mother is a quixotic, neurotic but undeniably goodhearted drag queen played by Douglas Hodge, who, by the way, is giving the most exuberant musical-comedy performance of the season.

Hodge is the primary reason this riotously funny and, yes, emotionally affecting revival of the Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein musical has returned to Broadway only five years after its last New York appearance. Yet there is more to the show than Hodge's star-making performance.

"La Cage," which opened Sunday at Broadway's Longacre Theatre, has been imaginatively reconceived by director Terry Johnson, who first directed it at London's tiny Menier Chocolate Factory. The Longacre is bigger but still is one of Broadway's smaller houses, so this is an intimate, vest-pocket "La Cage."

The orchestra is perched high in little boxes on either side of the stage and a row of tables sits in front of the stage to give the musical the feeling of actually taking place in that notorious Saint-Tropez night spot known as La Cage aux Folles.

This den of sparkle dust, bugle beads, ankle straps, maribou, ostrich plumes and Shalimar (to quote from Herman's stylish, easy-on-the ear lyrics) is presided over by Georges (Kelsey Grammer of "Frasier" fame) and Albin (Hodge), two longtime lovers who own and perform in the club.

Grammer has a surprisingly sturdy singing voice and an ingratiating stage manner, just right for the calm - well, relatively calm - voice of reason in the chorus of quirky, high-spirited characters who populate Fierstein's plot of filial devotion.

For those who came in late, the story concerns a dustup over Georges' son, Jean-Michel, conceived long ago during an indiscreet one-night stand. Now the young man (A.J. Shively) wants to bring home his fiancee and her parents, but his prospective father-in-law is head of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party. Jean-Michel wants the flamboyant Albin kept under wraps, so to speak, during the visit, even though the man raised him as his own.

Flamboyant may be too mild an adjective. One of the delights of Hodge's performance is his joyous, music-hall rowdy portrayal of Albin's on-stage drag persona, Zaza. In one of Zaza's most delicious impersonations, Hodge resembles a slightly gone-to-seed Marilyn Monroe during her "Seven-Year Itch" period. The actor has embroidered the role vocally, too, at one point channeling not only Edith Piaf but Marlene Dietrich as well.

Herman's score is his most atmospheric and that's saying something since the man also wrote "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame." The songs for "La Cage" ooze Gallic charm, unabashed romance and melodies that are impossible to get out of your head. Try not singing "The Best of Times" in the shower. Impossible.

The club setting is more appropriately downscale than in the musical's two previous Broadway incarnations. And so are Les Cagelles, the chorus of female impersonators who entertain with Zaza. These guys are equal parts naughty and tawdry, particularly Nicholas Cunningham who portrays the whip-cracking Hanna from Hamburg. They perform Lynne Page's ambitiously athletic choreography with abandon.

The supporting cast offers delirious comic support - from Robin De Jesus as a Googie Gomez-inspired domestic who attends Albins' every whim to Fred Applegate and Veanne Cox as the girl's bewildered parents.

When "La Cage aux Folles" originally opened on Broadway in 1983, gay marriage was not on the horizon. At the time, Fierstein's book was considered groundbreaking for depicting a long-term gay relationship in all its domestic normalcy. In the nearly three decades since then, the idea of gay marriage is a reality, at least in some places.

These days, Georges and Albin could be considered just another old married couple, yet their story as told in "La Cage" could not be more timely and enjoyable.




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